There are few things more exciting for the fan base of an NFL franchise – at least during the long offseason months – than a big free agent signing. And they don't get much bigger than Carl Nicks, the 349-pound Pro Bowl guard the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed away from their division rivals in New Orleans a year ago.
Nicks availability on the free agent market was something of a surprise, if a slow-developing one. It was born of a complicated situation for the Saints that saw Nicks, quarterback Drew Brees and wide receiver Marques Colston all headed for free agency and only one franchise tag available. The Saints couldn't keep Nicks off the market in the end and the Buccaneers pounced as soon as they could.
Certainly, Nicks wasn't going to wait long once he became available, wherever he was going to land. It is not common for a blocker of his caliber and his age to be on the market. Check the Pro Bowl rosters from this past February. Of the 22 men who were selected for the game (some as alternates after others became unavailable), a whopping 18 of them were still playing for the teams that originally drafted them, including every single player who was chosen as a starter.
Ten of those 22 O-Line Pro Bowlers from last season also happened to be first-round picks. Truly elite offensive line performers are difficult to acquire and often cost a team such valuable resources as first-round picks, not to mention lucrative second contracts down the line to keep them in town. That's exactly what the Buccaneers have done, in both the draft and free agency, in acquiring and developing Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph.
Yet, despite all of that, there are some young and potentially star-caliber offensive linemen who are now just days away from becoming free agents. Last year saw Nicks and above-average guard Ben Grubbs both change teams (Grubbs actually filled the hole left by Nicks' departure from the Big Easy); this year's movement could top even that.
Would the Buccaneers be involved? Given the investment they made in Nicks just last year, it's hard to picture the team landing the top available blocker again in 2013. However, as always, free agency offers the discerning team options beyond the most expensive and coveted items on the shelves; "lower-tier" players can provide depth or even more affordable starting options. As such, it's worth looking at the position even if it doesn't seem like the most obvious Buccaneer target. As we do at each position in our free agency primers, we will consider five questions as we work our way through the depth chart:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2012?
As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff. We now look at the offensive line after previously addressing the defensive line, wide receivers, safeties, tight ends, cornerbacks and running backs.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Offensive Line
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
The Buccaneers drafted Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood with their first two picks in 2006, and both players got new deals with the team just before the start of the 2011 campaign. Joseph's was a seven-year pact, while Trueblood's was a more modest two-year agreement. Thus, Joseph is locked up through the 2017 season while Trueblood is preparing to hit free agency for a second time.
That works for the Buccaneers, who have seen Joseph voted into two Pro Bowls and are expecting an enormous O-Line boost when both he and Nicks return from season-ending injuries this year. Joseph missed the whole season after a preseason knee mishap while Nicks gutted out a painful toe injury for seven games before being shut down. Healthy, the two might form the most talented starting guard combo in the league.
Trueblood also had an ankle injury to contend with early in the 2012 season, which led to third-year man Demar Dotson getting a start in Week Two and then eventually taking the right tackle job for the rest of the year. Trueblood played in a reserve role in eight more games before landing on injured reserve near the end of November.
The Buccaneers other starting tackle, Donald Penn, is also under contract through the 2015 season. Dotson could become an unrestricted free agent next spring. The Buccaneers have a total of 12 offensive linemen under contract heading into the 2013 offseason, though much of it is inexperienced depth.
- The potential free agent market
Again, this could be a more robust group than usual, particularly at the coveted tackle position.
As expected, the Denver Broncos put the franchise tag on left tackle Ryan Clady; otherwise, Clady would have been the top name on the list, and maybe the most coveted player in all of free agency. The Kansas City Chiefs also managed to get the tag on tackle Branden Albert at the last minute, after taking care of new deals for competing tag options Dwayne Bowe and Dustin Colquitt. In addition, the New York Giants managed to keep tackle Will Beatty off the market without using their tag, signing him to a new five-year deal instead on February 27.
Despite all of that, there are still options for teams looking for help at the position. Cincinnati's Andre Smith, who has overcome a somewhat slow start to his career to emerge as an above-average left tackle, can test the waters because the Bengals chose to tag defensive end Michael Johnson instead. Sebastian Vollmer has played right tackle in New England, and played it very well, but he could move on as the Patriots elected not to use their tag at all. Either player would be able to step in immediately as a starter and offer an upgrade to many teams.
Miami left tackle Jake Long is a little bit more of a gamble, in that he has struggled with a variety of injuries the last two years. Long, the first overall pick in the 2008 draft, quickly became a star at the position but has not necessarily played at the same level the last two years. If a team becomes convinced that Long's recent downturn has been the result of those injuries, and that Long is now healthy and ready to retake his spot among the elite, he could get a lucrative deal, as well.
Minnesota's Phil Loadholt is coming off a 2012 season in which he drew raves for his play, particularly as a run-blocker. While the 27-year-old Loadholt appears to be improving as a pass-blocker, as well, some team could conceivably see him as an elite option at guard instead of tackle. Either way, the Vikings and several other teams are likely to push hard to sign him. Loadholt certainly played a part in Adrian Peterson's amazing comeback season.
Those are probably the most coveted edge blockers headed towards free agency, but there's a surprising amount of depth even after those names on the next tier of free agents. Shopping teams will find nearly a half-dozen tackles who, while perhaps not ticketed for stardom, have established themselves as NFL starters. That list starts with two players from the Bucs' own division: the Saints' Jermon Bushrod and the Falcons' Sam Baker. Baker, a former first-round pick, has been a starter for most of his five-year NFL career, while Bushrod has been protecting Drew Brees' blind side for the last four years and is coming off his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. Those two may be most likely to stay put with their current NFC South teams, but both are just days away from testing free agency.
Also on that list: the Detroit Lions' Gosder Cherilus, the Kansas City Chiefs' Eric Winston, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Max Starks and the Indianapolis Colts' Winston Justice. All were starters last year.
The guard position has at least one gem, too, as two-time Pro Bowler Andy Levitre has a chance to depart Buffalo if he chooses. Levitre should draw significant interest on the market, as should the somewhat lesser-known but perhaps even more talented Louis Vasquez of the San Diego Chargers. The only weakness in the market appears to be at the center position, where the top options may be 36-year-old Todd McClure of the Falcons or interior swingman Kevin Boothe of the Giants.
Of course, the deep overall offensive line market could make it tougher for those pending free agents to land the deals they desire, such as Nicks did last year when he was so clearly the top available option. That in turn could lead to more of these potential movers staying with their original teams instead, if they find that the deals offered at home are just as good as the ones coming in from other teams.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
Well, as indicated in the above notes about the most recent Pro Bowl linemen, the draft is certainly the best way to find a long-term high-caliber starter, particularly at offensive tackle. That is definitely going to be the strategy for several teams picking near the top of the first round this year, as there appears to be a handful of those very coveted blue-chip options. In fact, there may be enough depth among the blockers with elite potential to see one slip as far as the Buccaneers' pick at #13.
There is still some debate, however, as to which prospect is the best option. Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel usually gets that nod in mock drafts – and there are many who believe the Chiefs will pair their trade acquisition of quarterback Alex Smith with Joeckel at the top pick – but he has strong competition from Central Michigan's Eric Fisher. Fisher's draft "stock" has risen considerably in recent months, especially after he turned in a nice performance at the Scouting Combine.
It's even quite possible that neither Joeckel or Fisher will end up being the best long-term tackle drafted this year, as Oklahoma's less experienced but enormously athletic Lane Johnson is impressing teams with his potential. Johnson has progressed from high school quarterback to tight end to defensive line and now to the O-Line, and he is amazingly nimble for a 6-7, 303-pound man. Alabama's D.J. Fluker has also been seen in the top 15 picks in some mock drafts, though his spot in the first round may depend on whether teams expect him to slot in at right tackle or have the potential to play on the left side.
Justin Pugh of Syracuse, Dallas Thomas of Tennessee, Menelik Watson of Florida State and Oday Aboushi of Virginia give the tackle position some real depth heading into the second day of the draft. Moreover, there is a clutch of interior linemen, some of whom actually have a shot at the top half of the first round, to make this a very deep group of available blockers.
Alabama guard Chance Warmack is the highest-rated of those guards and centers and although interior linemen rarely go as high as tackle he has a chance to crack the top 10. Scouts are also high on North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper. Kentucky guard Larry Warford and centers Travis Frederick of Wisconsin and Barrett Jones of Alabama are likely second-day picks, though Frederick's combine performance didn't help his stock.
There is definite help available on the offensive front for many teams in this year's draft. Fortunately for the likes of Long and Levitre, free agency comes first and they have a chance to secure new deals with teams that don't want to risk missing out in late April. This year, it appears as if free agency and the draft are equally attractive ways to address the offensive line.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
Even before the signing of Nicks, the Bucs had a fairly active history in free agency in terms of addressing the offensive line. The Nicks signing is still the most dramatic of those moves, and the Bucs expect it to pay off handsomely over at least the next four years, but the market has yielded the team capable starters on quite a few occasions. A few lukewarm attempts in the early years of free agency have given way to a string of successes at varying levels, particularly at the center position.
The first move the Bucs tried on the O-Line after the new CBA was put in place in 19933 was a dramatic one, with Head Coach Sam Wyche luring his former Bengals star Anthony Munoz out of retirement in 1993. Munoz eventually went on to the Hall of Fame, but he never made it to the regular season with the Buccaneers that year, suffering an injury during the preseason and going back to retirement. Tackle Tim Irwin, a signing from the Vikings, didn't work much better in 1994, as he played in just eight games and started six as a Buccaneer. Tackle Scott Adams, signed in 1996, played in six games and started two in his only year in Tampa.
The tide started to turn in 2000 with the addition of center Jeff Christy, a UFA pickup from Minnesota. The Buccaneers also signed legendary guard Randall McDaniel from Minnesota at the same time, but McDaniel had been released and wasn't technically an unrestricted free agent. Regardless, both players stepped immediately into the starting lineup and went to the Pro Bowl that season. McDaniel was close to the end of his stellar career but Christy lasted through 2002 and was the team's starting center in Super Bowl XXXVII.
That Super Bowl team also had the gritty Kerry Jenkins starting at left guard, and Jenkins was one of a handful of starters the team picked up in free agency that year after the arrival of new Head Coach Jon Gruden. (The starting left tackle was also a 2002 veteran important, Roman Oben, but he had been released by the Browns and wasn't technically an unrestricted free agent.) After winning the title, the Bucs released Christy and then signed free agent John Wade away from Jacksonville. Wade started most of the next five seasons for the Buccaneers, even coming back from a serious knee injury at one point.
A class of 2004 free agents that didn't work out particularly well for the Buccaneers (Charlie Garner, et al.) included guards Matt O'Dwyer and Matt Stinchcomb. Stinchcomb started every game at left guard in '04, but not to particularly strong reviews, and O'Dwyer struggled with injury issues. Two signings that looked fairly promising in 2006, guard Toniu Fonoti and tackle Torrin Tucker (the latter a restricted free agent from Dallas) failed to deliver any solid returns. However, the team made a signing of a much higher level two years later, luring Jeff Faine from New Orleans, and Faine spent the next four years as the team's starting center. Faine's career in Tampa was interrupted by a handful of injuries, but he was a solid performer and a good leader in the locker room.
Overall, Tampa Bay's forays into free agency at offensive line have yielded a decent number of good results, with some obvious misfires. The 2012 addition of Carl Nicks is likely to emerge as the team's most important signing ever at that position. That the best successes have come at center and not tackle are unsurprising as, this year's group notwithstanding, top-notch offensive tackles don't hit the open market very often.
- 2012 Performance
It's easy to wonder what this review might look like if Joseph and Nicks had combined to play something close to 32 games. Instead, they got a total of seven, and that led to a complete reshuffling of the offensive front. Given the many necessary moves, the Bucs' performance up front was relatively strong, particularly in terms of providing holes for rookie sensation Doug Martin.
Joseph's preseason injury initially led to 2010 starter Ted Larsen stepping back into the lineup at right guard. Jamon Meredith, a converted tackle, took the job from Larsen a month into the season, but Larsen got back on the field three weeks later when Nicks went to injured reserve. Extremely versatile fifth-year man Jeremy Zuttah got the job he wanted at center to start the season, but Nicks' injury forced the Bucs to move him back to left guard, opening up center for Larsen. Dotson's promotion in September meant that the only position that kept the same starter all year on the O-Line was left tackle, Donald Penn's province.
Fantasy football experts expected Doug Martin's production to fall off steeply after Nicks' injury, but the reworked line kept the rookie back on the rise, providing blocking for a 1,454-yard season. A new record for Buc rookies, that was also the 10th-highest rushing yardage total by any NFL newcomer in league history. Martin was responsible for most of the yards generated by the NFL's 15th-best rushing attack. The Bucs' average of 4.4 yards per carry was good for 11th-best in the league.
At the same time, the front line provided solid protection for Freeman, who was sacked just 26 times. Using sacks allowed per pass play as the criteria, Freeman enjoyed the eighth-best protection in the NFL last year. That allowed him to become the first 4,000-yard passer in team annals while also tossing a team-record 27 touchdown passes.
Considering the circumstances, the Bucs' offensive line corps stepped up and played quite well in 2012. The team hopes to be able to say that again in 2013, only without the "circumstances" clause.
Summary: Tampa Bay's offensive line will have two very valuable "additions" in 2013, but they won't come from free agency or the draft. The returns of Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks from season-ending injuries in 2012 should allow the Buccaneers to field the sort of front line that they expected would be among the league's best a year ago. Given the team's fairly recent and sizeable investments in Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks – all of whom have made it to the Pro Bowl – it would be an unexpected move to see them make another big splash on the line in free agency in 2013. However, the surprisingly deep group of available blockers means that many teams, including the Buccaneers, could use the open market to shore up depth at the position. Moreover, the draft class is deep in linemen who should be taken in the first few rounds, and the Bucs could choose to address one of their O-Line positions this April, with an eye to the future, regardless of what they are currently fielding as a starting unit.